"Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth "
Many 20th-century literary figures have undergone such exhaustive biographical treatment that a scholar wishing to venture into well-traversed territory is compelled to proffer a startling new thesis to vindicate his labors. All too frequently, alas, the "novel" approach is banal or strained—serving up a bit of latent homosexuality in one author, a touch of incipient feminism in another. At times, however, a new biography invites us to reexamine a writer's oeuvre (or at least a particular aspect of it) in a genuinely fresh way. Martin Stannard's Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939, the first of a projected two-volume work, is just such an invitation; and the reason for this is Stannard's manifest seriousness of purpose: the biography "attempts," he says, "something which no other biographical study of Waugh has done: to forge a relationship between the crucial events of Waugh's life and his developing aesthetic." The ambitious objective requires scholarship that is at once industrious and discriminating; Stannard's efforts have both of these virtues, and his book is certainly the most definitive account to date of Waugh's early life and work.
Stannard patiently sketches Waugh's firmly...